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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Moving Beyond Powerpoint to Engage Advocacy Students

Suparna Malempati is an associate professor of law at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, where she teaches trial advocacy. This is her first guest piece for our blog, and we hope there are many more to come.

 When I began teaching Trial Advocacy a few years ago, I structured my class in a manner similar to the NITA programs.  I began class with a fairly short lecture (generally 20 minutes) about the day’s topic.  I then either demonstrated the technique being taught or showed a video clip.  I engaged the students after the lecture and demonstration with an exercise.  I thought that to be the best manner of organizing the class.  I spent hours preparing power point slides for each lecture, and summoned all my talents of effective presentation.  After all, I was a trial attorney.  I was able to engage jurors with brilliant closing arguments that lasted hours.  Of course I could hold the attention of students for a 20-minute lecture.
And my lectures were fabulous - they covered the law, the ethics, the techniques, and provided examples.  I had wonderful power point presentations and handouts to accompany my lectures.  It seemed like the perfect structure for a 90-minute Trial Advocacy class. 

But something was wrong.  I noticed that about two weeks into every semester, I began to lose some students during the lecture portion of every class.  I saw the look – the glazed eyes, the lack of focus, the faces of students who were disengaged and bored.  Bored?  How could they be bored with me, the consummate trial lawyer, as their professor?  It was unimaginable.    

I also realized that on lecture days, the students would not read the text assignments at all.  They showed up in class, sat in their seats, and zoned completely out.  So, I tried harder.  I thought of war stories; I incorporated jokes; I added visual aids.  I even banned laptops.  But still, I would see the look in students’ eyes – the gaze of thoughts that were far from the material I was covering.

Over time, I realized the students were bored because they were not engaged.  Lectures from professors, no matter how fabulous the professor may be, do not engage students.  Power point presentations, no matter how elaborate, do not engage students.  That’s true in my Legal Writing class, it’s true in my Criminal Procedure class, and I realized, it’s true in my Trial Advocacy class.

So I tried something different.  I began to ask questions.  Rather than explaining direct examination to the students, I asked them about direct examination.  I designed questions to illustrate the same points I wanted them to gain from my lectures.  It was an amazing transformation.  I could see the eyes darting back and forth, the brains working, the students sitting up in their seats, thinking, listening, and learning.  And even more amazing, they began looking at the text and reading prior to class.
I still use my power point presentations on occasion.  I use them after some dialogue with students in order to reinforce the discussion points.  The students drive the discussion with me as their guide, and we cover the necessary material in a more effective manner.

I am loathe to use the term “Socratic” because it seems to hold different meanings for different people.  I think dialogue-based pedagogy better describes what I try to do in my Trial Advocacy course now.  How does that work?  How does that fit in a skills class?  What do I mean “ask students questions”?  How do I ask students about trial techniques?

The difference between the NITA method of teaching, which is designed for seminar style continuing legal education courses for lawyers, and the law school classroom is the length of the course.  During a typical fourteen week semester, the students become complacent with lectures from a professor.  Lectures are a form of passive learning, which is not nearly as effective as an engaged classroom.  Students are engaged when they are expected to speak before their professor and classmates.  The dialogue-based method, as opposed to a lecture, also provides a warm-up for the drills and exercises that follow the instructional portion of the Trial Advocacy class.

When I walked into Trial Advocacy this semester, I introduced myself and proceeded to ask the students, “What is advocacy?”  I received all sorts of answers.  The students had not actually thought about it or even looked up the term.  We all think we know what advocacy means.  We all think we know what trial advocacy means.  During the discussion, I led the students to think about what differentiates effective from ineffective legal advocacy.  We discussed ethical issues that arise when representing clients, the three golden rules of trial work (prepare, prepare, prepare), and the absolute necessity of the basic lawyering skill of applying law to facts.  That discussion led into the introductory reading about case analysis. 

Although dialogue-based pedagogy for skills courses seems awkward or out of place, I encourage all skills professors to try it.  Put the power points and lectures to rest one day and create a series of questions that guide students to the relevant conclusion, principle, or concept.  The class not only becomes more engaging for the students, but also more fun to teach. 

I plan to further the use of the dialogue method in the critique portion of my Trial Advocacy class.   
This week when a student performs his or her direct examination, I am going to call randomly on a second student.  I will refer to a portion of the direct and ask the second student to tell the class what was wrong with the question or questions and what could be done differently.  We will see how that works.  But I have a feeling that it will be fabulous, engaging, and effective.

--Suparna Malempati


  1. Chris is absolutely correct about the need to find new ways of engaging a new generation of learners. The days of mesmerizing a class with oratorical skills, jokes, and pretty picture are past. When our students can find the same information and read it far more quickly than we can speak about it. This is all part of the revolution occurring in legal education throughout the US.

    Throughout NITA's existance we have modeled the idea of telling, showing, and doing. The process works. However, even at NITA we are experimenting with new ideas and methods. For example, we are transposing many of the standard live lectures to recordings. At some programs these videos are assigned viewing in place of live presentations. The videos are not the traditional one hour lecture but a series of short clips that break a broader topic into component pieces. BY watching in advance we buy extra time for performance. Likewise, we are recognizing and embracing the concept that participants come to programs with their own wealth of knowledge on subjects. Each participant brings his or her own knowledge base to the program. We all have had the experience of the student who "knows a lot" and how it can sometimes be difficult to offer suggestions. At some programs we are now using a process of collaboration similar to the process Chris describes. We begin by asking what makes for a good...and let the participants (with guidence) fill out the learning points themselves. We then ask those same participants to work with one of the points, take their own transcript, and (with guidence) offer comments.

    Hopefully, such experimentation is occuring in classrooms everywhere. Chris point that we should not stay stagnent is the key. If we expect our students to experiment we should also do the same. If it worked for Edison it should work for us.

  2. It's not just students who don't want to be spoken AT. Jurors are people too. Effective communication is a flow both ways. We don't treat jurors well in our trial system but, with all its limitations, watch and listen to how some advocates have a knack of making jurors feel valued and involved.

  3. Just a quick correction to Mark Caldwell's comments. I agree with all of them, but want to ensure the ideas and article are attributed to Suparna Malempati.

    Also, I want to add that Suparna does a superb job of showing us how good teachers become better. All of us have "done time" in classrooms in which the professor obviously hadn't thought about how to teach the material in years, if ever. Truth be told, many of us have probably BEEN that professor at some stage in our careers. Suparna reminds us that a gifted teacher is constantly seeking ways to ensure engagement with her students.

  4. With great apologies to the actual author. I was so engaged with the content that I failed to recognize the author. What a bonehead!